Resisting Antibiotic Resistance
Maybe this has happened to you: After you develop a cold or flu, a family member offers you their unfinished bottle of antibiotics to help you kick it. Should you take them?
In short: no, no, no. The efficacy of antibiotics, one of medicine’s most important weapons in fighting bacterial illness, is becoming compromised by misuse. In a 2013 interview, CDC associate director Dr. Arjun Srinivasan said:"The more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant… We are quickly running out of therapies to treat some of these infections that previously had been eminently treatable. There are bacteria that we encounter, particularly in health-care settings, that are resistant to nearly all — or, in some cases, all — the antibiotics that we have available to us."
How did this happen? Antibiotics are drugs designed to kill microorganisms — mainly the bacteria that cause disease and infection. Penicillin, the first natural antibiotic, was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Since then, untold lives have been saved by antibiotics. However, you know that old saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? That most definitely applies to bacteria. Any time bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, some are unaffected while others die. The resistant strains then multiply and become more prevalent.
For many years, livestock farmers have been routinely giving antibiotics to animals on a massive scale — not to cure them of illness, but to help them gain weight faster. However, it also encourages the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. In 2010, the FDA said this practice is a threat to public health and should be stopped, but has not yet moved to force the issue.
It is also known that small amounts of antibiotics and other drugs are finding their way into the water supply, partly because most wastewater treatment plants have no way of removing it. Less is known about the health effects of this, but most scientists agree it’s at least enough cause for concern to study more closely.
Most of us have very little control over things like water quality and food production practices, but we absolutely have control over how we approach the use of antibiotics in treating personal conditions. Here is a list of basic guidelines.
- If your health care provider finds you do not have a bacterial infection, but rather a viral infection like a cold or the flu, do not pressure your provider to prescribe an antibiotic. Taking an antibiotic to fight a virus does nothing to help and potentially makes it harder to fight bacterial infection in the future.
- Take an antibiotic exactly as the health care provider tells you. Do not skip doses, and complete the prescribed course of treatment even if you are feeling better. Do not save some of your antibiotic for the next time you get sick. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect.
- Do not take antibiotics that have been prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness, and taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.
Prevention Tip: Keep it Clean
The best way to prevent the spread of infection at home and in the community involves proper hygiene. Hands are the number one way by which we transmit germs from one person to another. The Mayo Clinic reports that you should wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer before you prepare food, treat wounds, eat, touch someone who's sick or injured, or put in or take out contact lenses. Wash or sanitize your hands after handling foods (especially raw poultry and other meat), touching an animal, using the bathroom, tending to wounds, taking out garbage, or touching someone who's ill or injured. Also, cleanse your hands after you blow your nose, or sneeze or cough into your palms.
Surprisingly, antibacterial soap isn't any better at getting rid of germs than normal soap, according to the Mayo Clinic. In fact, antibacterial soap may cause you to develop bacteria that are immune to the soap's antimicrobial properties. Simply wet your hands, lather well, wash for 20 seconds and rinse. Blot dry with a towel or use an air dryer. If you're using a public facility, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using your paper towel to turn off the tap.
What about those hand sanitizers? Many people are under the mistaken impression that the profusion of alcohol-based hand sanitizers is helping to drive bacterial resistance. This is not true. Alcohol kills germs within seconds by physically destroying the cell membrane and denaturing proteins within the bacteria. Because alcohol evaporates from the hands within seconds, the bacteria are never exposed to low levels of alcohol so there is no opportunity for adaptation to it. Hand-washing does have the advantage of getting rid of dirt, but if you’re away from a sink, hand sanitizer is a safe and effective alternative.